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Warmer winters put Minnesota dog sledding at risk

Warming Minnesota winters caused in part by climate change are threatening winter recreation and sports like dog sledding that are essential to local economies. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kaomi Goetz ventured north to Ely, Minnesota, to see how global warming is disrupting seasonal businesses and the ways locals are trying to adapt.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    This weekend, we are bringing you a special series of stories examining how the changing climate is impacting states along the Mississippi river. Our reporters and producers spent the last month traveling to several states that border the Mississippi to explore not only the impact of climate change but solutions for combating rising waters, environmental hazards and disruption of commerce. We begin where the Mississippi River does; in the state of Minnesota, where businesses in the north that rely on the cold are facing warmer winters. One such business is dogsledding. Kaomi Goetz, a reporter for One Greater Minnesota, brings us the story from Twin Cities PBS. This series is part of our on-going series Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change and is produced in partnership with Nexus Media News, a non-profit news organization.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    Temperatures dipped to minus digits for the 35th annual John Beargrease dogsled marathon. At 300 miles, it's the longest dogsled race in the lower 48 states. Peter McClelland runs a dogsled adventure business in Ely. He was one of the 11 marathon competitors. He said it's a challenging course.

  • Peter McClelland:

    The main thing you're gonna think about is just take it easy in the beginning. You could lose this race in the first run. You cannot win this race in the first run.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    After connecting with his dogs, it was McClelland's turn to start.

    Five…four…three…two…one. The mentor is now the competitor.

    It seemed like a picture-perfect wintry postcard. But the Beargrease is changing. Organizers had to shave off more than 70 miles from last year's course. It was also rerouted. All because of a continual trend: lack of snow.

  • Monica Hendrickson:

    Climate change, I think it's coming, it's here probably. I'm not an official, but I think it's here. And it's definitely something that's going to affect our industry.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    The changes are already being felt by those who make their living off winter. Paul Schurke came up to Ely decades ago and runs a dog sledding business.

  • Paul Schurke:

    We've kept our own little notes on our operating season since we started here 40 years ago and we've seen our dogsled operating season diminish by something in the order of 20%. Our first several years we were able to consist in the first decade, we consistently dogsledded for about 116-120 days a winter, now maybe just over 90 if we're lucky.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    Losing a month or more is a disaster for a four-month seasonal business. Many of the state's dog sledders are concentrated around Ely. Schurke estimates if they all go under, it'll be a loss of $1.5 million a year to the area economy. And that's a lot for a community that can't survive on summer tourism alone.

  • Paul Schurke:

    For those of us who have been here now for some decades and who's businesses have been dependent on it, we've got a microscopic view of what's going down because we deal with it daily.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    The wintry beauty is something to see. But the scientists agree: winter in Minnesota is under siege.

  • Kenny Blumenthal:

    The summertime temperature is going up, but mostly because it's going up at night, it's not going up during the day. When we look at winter, the winter time temperature is going up both during the day and especially at night, and winter in general is warming about ten times faster than summer in Minnesota over the last five decades or so.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    He says it amounts to a warming of about one degree per decade and that contributes to milder winters, but what about the recent Polar Vortex of 2019? Blumenthal says we used to get a lot of more of them and they stuck around for weeks.

  • Kenny Blumenthal:

    The fact that it has been 23 years since one like this has happened, is probably really strong evidence that the climate has changed and is changing. We're seeing this sort of an environmental distress or an emotional anxiety.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    Researchers are looking at how people are responding to climate change. In Duluth, cross-country skiers are often challenged with less snow.

  • Thomas Beery:

    One creative adaptation we've seen people do is turning to winter hiking. Turning to fat tire bicycle riding, there's fat tire bike tracks all over the place here, where people are getting out on a bike.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    Beery says with the changes there also comes a new anxiety, loss of identity and even livelihood. Peter McClelland finished seventh in the Beargrease. Now it's back to work giving people a taste of winter's magic. But he says some years it's been a scramble.

  • Thomas Beery:

    One of the problems with this whole climate change and tourism. You get a good winter, it's off everyone's radar screen. And then we'll have two or three marginal winters in a row, and it's all everyone's talking about.

  • Kaomi Goetz:

    McClelland loves what he does for a living. You have to, since there's little money in it. But it's a passion he knows he won't be able to pass on to his kids.

  • Peter McClelland:

    I'd love to be able to do that. But you know we are going to keep having winters, so but are we have enough weeks of winter that you can have a business that's viable.

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